Each year, thousands of people around the world die while waiting for an organ transplant.
Even if a donor organ is found, patients still face the risk of their bodies rejecting the new organ as well as a lifetime filled with immunosuppressant drugs to try to prevent this from happening.
New research out this week sounds like it comes from a science fiction story, however, it could open up a future that solves the challenges of organ donation by creating personalised organs grown on demand.
Organ donation is the process of surgically removing an organ from one person and placing it into another person. Usually, transplantation is needed when the recipient's organ has failed due to damage by injury or disease. There are many more patients on the organ donation waitlist than there are people who actually donate their organs. This makes the odds of finding a suitable organ in the right place at the right time very slim.
Although in New Zealand the rate of organ donation has increased, last year nationwide only 73 people donated their organs.
The easiest way to become an organ donor in New Zealand is to tick the "yes" box to be identified as an organ donor when you get or renew your driver's licence. Because your family makes the final decision, letting them know your desire to donate is just as important as ticking the box.
When a donated organ is transplanted into a patient, the immune system of the recipient recognises the new tissue as foreign material and treats it like a threat by attacking the new tissue trying to destroy it. To prevent this rejection, the ideal solution would be to implant an organ made up of the same cells as the patient by growing a new organ in the lab.
However, previous attempts to do this have struggled to create tissue with a developed vascularisation system so blood can flow through the organ to keep it alive.
This week scientists published results in the journal Science Translational Medicine showing a new technique for growing organs in the lab that might help to solve this organ rejection challenge.
The researchers took a lung from an unrelated donor pig and stripped it of its blood and cells using a series of chemical sugar and detergent treatments. They were left with a lung scaffold made up of only proteins, which was then immersed in a tank filled with nutrients and some lung tissue cells from the recipient pig. Using their unique technique, the researchers were able to seed the scaffold with these lung cells, letting them grow in the tank for a month.
The growing process resulted in a cell-covered scaffold that grew complex tissue and blood vessel architecture, which allowed for blood flow and oxygenation. The lab-grown lung was then transplanted into the recipient pig and left to see how the pig responded to the new addition.
After two months the new lung appeared to be healthy and functioning. Most importantly, because the new lung had been grown from the cells of the pig, they were not rejected by the pig's immune system even though no immunosuppressant drugs were given.
Although the results are preliminary and there are still challenges with the functioning aspects of the donated lung, this new technique shows promise in the field of lab-grown bioengineered tissues.
The possibility of repeating this study in humans is still likely to be more than a decade away, however, a future world of lab-grown organs created from 3D-printed scaffolds is now one step closer to becoming a reality.
Dr Michelle Dickinson, creator of Nanogirl, is a nanotechnologist who is passionate about getting Kiwis hooked on science and engineering. Tweet her your science questions @medickinson